Tag Archives: psychology

Dietland by @QueSaraiSera #BookReview

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Dietland by @QueSaraiSera #BookReview

Dietland by Sarai Walker

published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co. (2015)


*This book is part of my 2017 search to find positive representations of fat women in fiction or nonfiction, and that positive representation will not hinge on weight loss and falling in love. Thus, books will either meet or not meet my criteria, which will factor overall into my recommendations. I purposely use the word “fat” because it is not a bad word. Using plump, curvy, plus-sized, fluffy, big-boned, shapely, voluptuous, or any other term suggests that fat is bad and thus needs a euphemism.


Dietland is a book unlike any I’ve read before. When I read the end acknowledgements, I wasn’t surprised that Walker claimed Fight Club was an inspiration to her. The novel begins with Plum, a fat woman who can’t say “fat” who works as a ghostwriter for a huge media corporation. Plum’s job is to respond to emails sent by teen girls who write in to the magazine Daisy Chain with their various teen girl issues. The woman who runs the column, the gorgeous Kitty, hired Plum to write back to thousands of messages that don’t make it to the pages of the magazine. Plum is told to work from home (it’s suggested her “look” doesn’t fit in the media world). People laugh at and make fun of Plum, but she ignores them. Every day she heads to a cafe to sit and respond to emails. She does nothing else.

Until one day she notices a girl in colorful tights is following her. And everything goes insane. The girl points her to a feminist organization run by Verena Baptist.

Verena’s mother, Eulayla Baptist, had been a powerhouse in the diet industry (perhaps like Jenny Craig). Plum had been on The Baptist Plan when she was a teen. It was her dream to be thin, and Eulayla was the dream weaver. When Eulayla died, though, daughter Verena wrote a tell-all memoir about how awful dieting was for Eulayla: the fridge was padlocked, a cook was hired so she wouldn’t see food, she stopped going to restaurants and church and seeing friends. Eventually, she had her stomach stapled to save her diet industry.

Yet, Eulayla gave fat women thin promises packed in tiny low-calorie dinners and shakes that tasted like cardboard. And Verena shut down the diet industry her mother had created, leaving women and girls like Plum pissed.

This part of the book is interesting. It shows how women like Plum and millions of others put their faith in a diet and a spokeswoman who promise thinness, which means happiness. The employees who run the meet-ups and weigh-ins make promises and keep the dream alive. Where Verena crushes the dream, women feel out of control of their lives. The feel like they’ll never be happy. Author Sarai Walker captures both sides of the dieting industry. I understand and relate to Plum’s dreams. I understand and relate to Verena’s work to expose the horrors of dieting industries. It’s also worth nothing that several real-life diet companies are not-so-subtly hinted at: Weight Watchers, Nutri-System, Slim Fast.

When Plum meets Verena in the present, about 15 years later, she’s still mad at Verena. Plum has bariatric surgery scheduled in a few months, but Verena says she’ll give Plum $20,000 to do the new Baptist Plan, which will change her life and mind about the surgery. Verena sets up difficult, sometimes humiliating tasks for Plum to teach her (sort of like V for Vendetta).

Unlike other books with fat women, readers know Plum weighs 304lbs. Bravo, I say. Authors claim they don’t give their characters a specific weight so readers can imagine themselves as the main character, but not every reader is a fat woman, nor should only fat women read books about fat women. Plus, we have this tendency to say:

I’m fat, but I’m not THAT fat.

Having an idea of what is “too fat” is basically setting up a cut-off mark for how acceptably fat a person can be. Some women say 200lbs. I used to say 400lbs, back before I thought more about weight and society. We’re saying we accept fat, but “Day-um! Not that much fat!” Don’t do that.

Dietland gets you thinking, a lot. At first, I didn’t like that Verena is thin and always has been. What does she have to say to fat women that is valid? But all women are attacked by a patriarchy. Things start happening around the globe; rapists are dropped from a plane, abusers are thrown off bridges, the media changes pictures of nude women to nude men in the same poses after family members are held hostage. The attacks seem in response to forcing women to be “fuckable,” either through sexual assault or images that perpetuate “fuckability.”

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Verena thinks locally: she doesn’t help Plum see that fat is fine, she helps Plum see that all women are under attack. When Verena shows Plum how to be “fuckable” because that’s what Plum thought she wanted, Plum learns that being “fuckable” is exhausting: waxing, make-up, clothes shopping, tummy tucking underwear, push-up bras, hair and nail appointments, etc. When I read the pages in which Plum was getting made over, I was exhausted myself! Women can’t only be thin, the must behave, be sexy, be agreeable. Plum learns that thin women aren’t better off:

Because I’m fat I know how horrible everyone is. If I looked like a normal woman…then I’d never know how cruel and shallow people are. I see a different side of humanity. Those guys I went on blind dates with treated me like I was subhuman. If I were thin and pretty, they would have shown me a different side, a fake one, but since I look like this, I know what they’re truly like.

While the story is told from Plum’s point of view, the story isn’t totally about her. What she does is a larger message that ties into these feminist/terrorist acts around the globe. For instance, clothes. Plum had been buying small clothes for her post-bariatric surgery body. Fat is temporary, she thinks, and that’s why fat women keep old clothes they used to fit into and won’t buy new clothes. Eventually, she buys bright clothes and doesn’t apologize (fat women are told to wear black).

Most of us struggle with clothes. Why? Is it because we’re trying to look like someone else in the mirror? We worry about the number on the size tag? The message is your body is not on its way to Thin Town and this is a temporary stop in Fatville. You’re life is now; the body you have is the one you live in now.

Dietland reads like a feminist fat-activist companion novel to Fight Club and gets you thinking. Truth be told, I quit wearing make-up after reading Dietland when I confessed to myself it takes time to put on and runs in my eyes by mid-afternoon.

Living with a Wild God #BookReview #Journalism #Memoir

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Living with a Wild God #BookReview #Journalism #Memoir

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything

by Barbara Ehrenreich

published by Hachette Book Group, 2014


Based on the title, I made some assumptions about Ehrenreich’s book, namely that it would be written by an atheist who wanted to investigate perhaps where religion comes from, how it influences us today, or why we still need religion in an age of mass technology. I use the word “investigate” because Barbara Ehrenreich is known most famously as a journalist. You’ve probably read all, or at least an excerpt, of Nickel and Dimed if you live in the United States. But I’m not sure what Living with a Wild God is. It’s not journalism. It’s not a memoir. It’s not fiction. It’s a hot mess.

Ehrenreich explains that when she lived in the Florida Keys she was asked by a library to donate her papers so they wouldn’t succumb to the mold so ubiquitous in that swampy area. The one thing she didn’t hand over, however, was a diary she wrote mainly from 1956-1959, when she was 14-17 years old. In the Forward, Ehrenreich explains that something “cataclysmic” happened to her, and she never wrote nor spoke about it to anyone lest they think her crazy. Like a good journalist, Ehrenreich makes some admissions:

It is true, I should further admit, that the narrative as I have reconstructed it lends itself quite readily to psychiatric explanation, or explanations: the tense and sometimes hazardous family life, the secret childhood quest for cosmic knowledge, the eerie lapses into a kind of “second sight,” the spectacular breakdown in my late teens.

Okay, so Ehrenreich admits there there are some psychological reasons that could explain this “cataclysmic” thing that happened to her (no details are yet provided)… but the entire book looks elsewhere for answers. Not a very useful admission if the author won’t explore it. However, we do get a background on this “hazardous family life.”

Ehrenreich’s first chapter, “The Situation,” describes her alcoholic parents and her original home in Butte, Montana. Ehrenreich’s father was a miner who crawled up the class ladder to become a white collar scientist after studying metallurgy. But it’s an uncle who really influences the author in this chapter: he explains that we’re all going to die, that it is a “great death march” we’re all doing. After the long Forward about the “cataclysmic” event, I figured “The Situation” would be about what happened. It’s not; the situation is that death lingers. Thus, the chapter felt dishonest.

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Chapter 2, “Typing Practice,” isn’t really about typing. Ehrenreich learns that when she writes, she thinks, and thus her diary begins. The author questions everything, such as why she learns about imaginary numbers in math class. Ehrenreich figures, “If you accept imaginary numbers without raising a question, you’ll swallow any goddamn thing they decide to stuff down your throat.” Chapter 2 also wanders: the parents are drunk, her mother believes Ehrenreich has some Oedipal yearnings for her father, the family is all atheists, she digs into science, and Ehrenreich tries a church. She writes in her diary — again, she’s 14:

Modern Protestantism…is a social organization, providing basketball, badminton, bowling, dancing and a Sunday fashion show. The most incongruous thing I ever saw in “our” church was a girl praying. I was startled, really.

This second chapter isn’t really about church or family. It wanders along with 14-year-old Barbara. The book you hold in your hands is middle-aged Barbara putting together who she was when she was a teen. In many places, I had to force myself to keep reading with the expectation that Living with a Wild God would be as organized and thoughtful as her previous books. Pretty much every moment while reading I wanted to stop.

Finally, in Chapter 3, readers learn what the “cataclysmic” event was:

So from a scientific perspective, what happened to me was that every now and then I simply stopped doing the work of perception and refused to transform the hail of incoming photons into named and familiar objects. There was plenty of input still pouring in in the form of sounds and color and lights, but it wasn’t getting sorted and categorized.

For a writer, Ehrenreich is being terribly vague. How does she experience whatever these …events… are? What does it look or feel like? By the end of the book, she mentions fire on one occasion, but the image is still unclear. Very briefly the author discusses “dissociative disorder,” but not to the extent that it clarifies what happens to her when she thinks she having some sort of religious experience as an atheist. Eventually, Ehrenreich is able to spit out that she feels “menaced by hazy sunlight.”

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Ehrenreich age 18, one year after she saw invisible angels.

After the biggest event to occur, though, the author is able to ask if she should tell anyone about her religious-type experience: “what would I have said? That I had been savaged by a flock of invisible angles — lifted up in a glorious flutter of iridescent feathers, then mauled, emptied of all intent and purpose, and pretty much left for dead?” Whoa! This quote is from page 163. That’s 163 pages into the book before the author is able to say in some clear language what her experiences are like — which is what the whole book is supposed to be about — and it’s so far-fetched and unreal that I don’t trust Ehrenreich anymore. What is the purpose of this book, I started asking. I’m not learning about religion, and I don’t understand Ehrenreich’s “experiences.”

And who is the audience for this book? The text suggests you must have prior engagement with Ehrenreich’s work, a firm grasp of science terminology, and be well-read enough to understand all the big words she uses: coterminous, apparatchiks, concatenation, sororal. I made the same complaint about vocabulary in my review of Bright-sided, but to heap on her personal history and physics, chemistry, and biology is too much. To whom would this book appeal other than Ehrenreich herself?

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Ehrenreich today, no less confused by angels and light and whatever else is “cataclysmic.”

Every chapter wanders around, from the author’s obsession with all things science to her inability to recognize that other humans have consciousness. Yes, as a teenager Barbara Ehrenreich didn’t realize that other people had thoughts and made choices. Her philosophical questions torment her until she’s like a poor Edgar Allen Poe character. Eventually, around 17, she quit eating and was putting cigarettes out on her hand. She believed she had “developed new powers.” At this point in the book, I’m worried for teen-aged Barbara and adult Barbara Ehrenreich. The girl is not convinced she should be alive or that other people are really there. She fantasizes about life in an apocalypse. The author, about 40 years later, can’t add insight or reason to her youthful self’s narrative — no motives, no probing into her behaviors, which is why I said that the author’s admissions in the Forward were useless.

The last couple of chapters read like a 10 minute lecture on what nonreligious types call Other or Others (something god-like that isn’t monotheistic). Using more sources and careful drafting, these two chapters, expanded into a book, is what Living with a Wild God should have been. Sadly, Ehrenreich thanks her editor in the acknowledgements for encouraging her to explore her old diary instead of focusing on a history of religion. Yeesh. Absolutely skip this disorganized mess and check out Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America or Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America instead. No one else in my book club came even close to finishing Living with a Wild God.

Damnation #bookreview #readwomen @diddioz

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Damnation #bookreview #readwomen @diddioz

Damnation by Janice Lee

published by Penny-Ante Editions, October 2013

Damnation, Janice Lee’s third book, was an intimidating piece to take on; conceptual works often can be, as it’s never a given that I will understand that concept or theory or the context in which the book was written. If you’ve read other reviews of Damnation, you’ll learn that it is “a book-length meditation on the long takes of the Hungarian film director Béla Tarr” (3AM Magazine). “What and who?” I ask. Apparently, Hungarians aren’t big in central Michigan. This is when more intimidation mounts. Will I be “smart enough” to read Janice Lee? After I read the introduction by Jon Wagner, a Professor of Critical Studies at California Institute of of the Arts and a Visiting Professor in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California (just copying from his bio at the end of Damnation), I knew the answer: Nope.Damnation-Lee.png

Part of being a reviewer, though is having the confidence to remember that I’ve read a lot of books in nearly every genre and style (blank books, digital art/music/words books, books that were what the author copied from a newspaper–lots of “out there” stuff). I took on Damnation with my game face on.

One thing that really helped, I must admit, was that the author had pointed me to a link that would take me to a place where she explains in her own words what this project is about. Here, Lee is honest about why she started this project, where she was emotionally, and to what level she took her obsession. It is a fantastic little piece, and I personally wish it was the introduction to the book instead of Professor Wagner’s, who is clearly an intelligent and thoughtful individual, but one who assumes we all have a film criticism in our brain files.

Once I got past the introduction, the work itself was just gorgeous. I was really surprised by how many quotes I wrote down to keep for later. While the “plot” (if one is to call it that) is very simple, the presentation is magical. Basically, a small town gets a package that is addressed to no one in particular. When they open it, they find inside a Bible, which is quickly passed from person to person. We learn “In a place where people both fear and revere the Word, it is also believed that certain words can manifest themselves in this plane and cause real pain and illness upon its bearers….children [start] hallucinating, having strange dreams of great destruction, and haphazardly reciting Bible passages in both their sleep and waking lives.” Since everyone is afraid to hear the Word, they make more noise to drown out the children saying the Bible passages. The town is one big, noisy hot mess. Also, it won’t stop raining. And then there’s wind, and it won’t stop being windy. The characters live in fear of being influenced by the Word: “It’s that book! You’ve been tainted with that book. I told you we shouldn’t have opened it. You insisted. God, your impenetrable stubbornness. And now look at what you’ve brought upon yourself. Endless grief and insomnia and foolish words. We should leave it alone, I said. If we don’t invite the devil in, he has a harder time getting in, isn’t that right? And now he’s here. You’ve brought him here. We all have. Perhaps, then, we all are doomed.”

This book is written in flash fiction. Some sections are just a few short sentences, while others go on for 1.5 to 2 pages. The result is there are a lot of blank pages to make sure each new flash piece begins on the right side of the page, so really the book is a quicker read than you might imagine. Sections examine what someone or something is doing during different moments. For instance, we see into the post office, but not from the perspective of the postal employee. Read about “the lovers” as they discuss staying or parting. Watch the cows or dogs move through the town. This might be what is meant by “long shot,” though I’m not sure what makes this style of writing different from other fiction written in flash. Adding the film aspect could lift the writing to greater levels for those who have the background, but it does not hinder those without. Either way, Lee’s writing is beautiful and thought-provoking. Here are some of my favorite passages (two quotes per theme):

On the past: “Everything that ever went wrong will be just a luminous dream from the past. I can unstitch this fabric and then stitch it back up.”

“What will we cling to when our world explodes? Many would answer those they hold dearest: their love, their children. That what makes them happy. But in reality, they will hold on to their pain. They will cling to their regrets and failures until the sweat and puss are squeezed from their pores.”

On depression: “The windowsill is rotting in places, but neglect and age helps one to forget these kinds of things and allows one to stay in bed longer than usual, especially when even the thought of getting dressed is exhausting.”

“The sadness, mixed with the rain, perhaps rusted around her exterior, like a hard metal coffin that held her not-quite dead body but also served as her defensive wall from misery and suffering of the world.”

On death: “Why were we only made to die?”

“-Probably I’m just anxious about aging but I can’t sympathize [with the death of the girl]. What does it matter if we’re all doomed anyway?

-Are you bringing up the book again?

-Why not? Look at what it’s done to the town. If the end doesn’t come soon, we’ll surely take on the job and finish each other off.”

The characters you’ll meet in Damnation are haunted individuals with no real set course in life. They can’t decide to stay or leave the town. They aren’t sure if hope is deadly. Things are deteriorating, though, and the people can tell: “From the depths of the earth, he thinks he can hear the dead stirring, then screaming, such horrible screaming that originates from below the ground.” If you are brave enough to get past what you’ve heard about Damnation and read the introduction knowing that you probably don’t have a background in film theory, you will easily find a seat waiting for you in Lee’s sad, ghostly world.

I want to thank Janice Lee for sending me a reviewer’s copy of her book in exchange for an honest review.

Harley & Me #bookreview #readwomen #harleydavidson #20BooksofSummer

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Harley & Me #bookreview #readwomen #harleydavidson #20BooksofSummer

Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy

published by Counterpoint Press, May 2016

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Harley and Me is a memoir about what it means to take risks. For Murphy, her risk-taking most noticeably began when she was a skateboarder in California. But a teen pregnancy followed by her baby’s adoption led Murphy into the arms of safety: marriage at 22 to a stable guy, 3 kids, house, university job, and what she calls a blanket of estrogen that kept her from doing anything too risky. But at 48 and contemplating divorce, Bernadette Murphy feels something unusual — something she wouldn’t image over the past 25 years of wife and mother — she wants to be fully alive, fully present, and not risk averse. Furthermore, she doesn’t want to do a “song and dance” to please men anymore.

I’ve been a passenger on motorcycles for 26 years. My parents have been riding my whole life. Before that, it was my paternal grandparents. You could say it’s a family thing! Go through my thousands of family photos and you’ll find dozens of motorcycle pictures from through the years, including strangers’ motorcycles (hey, if a bike looks good, you never want to forget it).

Far left: me leaning on my brother’s motorcycle circa 2004. Going to the right is my dad, brother, and granny on their newest rides circa 2016.

But Harley and Me is about a middle-aged woman getting a motorcycle, which isn’t terribly common — unless you’re my mom. Which is why I felt a great desire to read Murphy’s book when it popped up in my Twitter feed. I wanted to see how other women with nearly grown children felt about driving a “death machine,” as some paranoid people call them (as if we don’t die in cars).

Left: my sweet ma as passenger in the early 80s. Right: 4 motorcycles and 120,000+ miles later, my sweet ma today with her own award-winning motorcycle. I love the skeleton hands on the mirror!

Murphy really captures what it means to start riding a motorcycle. Her good friend Rebecca inherited a Harley dealership, which is how Murphy is lured into signing up for her motorcycle license. First, she must attend a week-long class. While most people have down the “look” of a biker (and I see this all the time — people who don’t own a motorcycle but do own an entire closet of leather and Harley-Davidson T-shirts), Murphy feels she does not. She shows up to class:

In baggy men’s Levi 501s, a stained T-shirt, gardening gloves, and hiking boots. I look more like a hired hand than a biker chick. At this moment, I’d love a pair of killer motorcycle boots.

Because I get what Murphy is saying about “the look,” I really enjoyed her descriptions and comparisons. Even when she dumps her bike the first time, she makes the scene come off the page:

I sit on the curb in front of the gas station’s convenience store. My hands shake. My mouth is dry. It feels as if all my blood has been exchanged for electricity. I am awash in shame. I don’t look like the badass biker chick I’m trying to become, but some kind of poseur who can’t control this machine, a pathetic girl trying to do something beyond her ability.

Here, I really felt for Murphy. Though pretty much everyone dumps their bike at one time or another, a woman doing so with witnesses serves as evidence that motorcycles are just “too much” for women. It’s scary to face those people shaking their heads, Murphy notes, wondering if she’s gone crazy and this is her mid-life crisis. A year later, she is divorced,and people wonder if the “crisis” caused Murphy to give up stability and comfort. The ability to take a chance, change her life, and try something brave had me nearly in tears for how safe and squishy I want to make my own life — truthfully, I felt like a wuss.

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Harley and Me provides plenty of commentary on feminism. Sometimes a whole book on feminism can be great, but when it’s woven into a personal narrative, the author can accomplish connections that might otherwise seemed forced. For instance, Murphy shares her love of Fonzie. Later, when talking to a male biker, he says he wishes he were the Fonz, and Murphy says she wanted to date the Fonz. But as the conversation changes direction, Murphy boldly confesses:

Actually, I take that back….I wanted to be Fonzie, too.

If Fonzie is cool, powerful, and slick, is he only a role model for men? Murphy proves no, and again I related to her inner complications about assigned gender roles. I often wished I had the power and energy and chaos that the men in my favorite rock bands, like the guys in Metallica, or Chris Cornell, or Tom Morello. Don’t we all wish to be seen and in control? For women, being seen is harder than men might think. We’re either invisible or on display like a prize cow.

Murphy breaks down stereotypes of women on bikes and how she doesn’t fit:

Just to get on a bike is to break prescribed gender roles even in this postfeminist age. By taking it one step further, refusing to be constricted by the typecast of the sexy biker mama or the hard-ass butch rider, is to accept one’s true sense of self. I like my motorcycle simply because I like to ride.

Her examination of stereotypes comes up again and again when she notes that her friend drives a pink motorcycle with Barbies attached to the sides, so everyone pays attention to her (and wants pictures). At biker events, women are almost always on the back (known as the “bitch seat” in biker culture) and are sure to have lots of skin showing, riding along in ridiculous spiked heels. After her divorce and bonding experience with her motorcycle, Murphy realizes she has a strong libido, and that to embrace it is not promiscuous or doing men a “favor,” but has to do with sex in biker culture.

There is a lot of useful information in Harley and Me, but this isn’t a book about discovering the love of riding. It’s about risk-taking. Murphy shares many (perhaps too many) articles and studies on the effects of taking risks on brain chemistry, how we strive our whole lives to create safety, but when safety is assured, our brains grown sluggish. We lack the brain chemistry that comes from risks, like learning a new language, taking up an instrument, sky diving, competing in a sport, getting a new job, dating, changing homes — or riding a motorcycle. I felt less wuss-like when I learned that “risk” isn’t defined by the activities from the X-Games; it’s what we personally consider risky.

I appreciated all the research Murphy did, but it really slowed down the memoir. Chapter 8 was terribly slow when she explained risk taking in a scientific sense, because she keeps explaining it. Basically, once we do something that makes us anxious because we took a risk, we get a hit of feel-good chemicals and want to do it again. This concept is restated at least a dozen times over the next 150 pages.

Part of reinforcing the theory that taking risks has made Murphy a dopamine fiend comes from personal evidence. There are many scenes in the 3rd part of the book: Murphy living in French Polynesia for three months, Murphy running a marathon there, scuba diving in the ocean, paddle boating, rock climbing, ice climbing. Each example comes with its own descriptions of how afraid she was, how she knows she can conquer fear, and how taking the risk will make her take new risks because she received those feel-good chemicals. Science was scattered throughout this section, too, and the book got so repetitive that I was forgetting the focus was Murphy’s relationship with her Harley-Davidson. I felt impatient and spacey.

The book ends with Murphy reiterating all the risks she’d experienced (though I’d just read them!) and taking a blood test to see if riding a motorcycle increases oxytocin. It was more science to prove that riding a motorcycle changed her life because it changed her chemistry, but I didn’t need it. I wanted more personal insights, more intense description that came earlier in the book, both when she described her current life and childhood. Including the numerous typos I spotted, I felt a stronger editor could have culled the best parts and made this into an educational, inspiring, feminist memoir.

I want to thank Bernadette Murphy and her publicist at Counterpoint Press for sending me a reviewer’s copy in exchange for an honest review. To learn more about Murphy’s writing, please check out her Meet the Writer feature!

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#20BooksofSummer

This book was read as part of Cathy 746‘s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th. Here’s the roster:

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  4. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (*might change ranking due to when book club meets)
  5. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  6. Of Zen and Men by Robin Stratton
  7. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  8. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  9. The Thirteenth Earl by Evelyn Pryce
  10. Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody
  11. Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper (*might change ranking due to when book club meets)
  12. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  13. Anne of Avonlea
  14. Anne of the Island
  15. Anne of Windy Poplars
  16. Anne’s House of Dreams
  17. Anne of Ingleside
  18. Rainbow Valley
  19. Rilla of Ingleside
  20. The Brothers Karamzov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

 

Only Ever Yours #bookreview #readwomen #YAlit

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Only Ever Yours #bookreview #readwomen #YAlit

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

published by Quercus in 2015

procured from the library

At a chunky 406 pages, Only Ever Yours is longer than I usually like to read for Grab the Lapels. However, in a search for friendship, I found a book club in my area advertised online. I was in luck; their next meeting would be 9 days later, and many of the books they had read, such as Furiously Happy and Between the World and Me, I had read too. The library, I discovered, kept O’Neill in the Teen section, which is when it dawned on me that Only Ever Yours is a young adult book. What’s the big beef, you might ask? While I don’t condemn young adult literature, I find that most of it takes societal problems and makes the issue so obvious that the book feels like a JUST SAY NO campaign. Why read YA when I can get my hands on the more nuanced adult versions? I know that YA is often an issue of sellers labeling a book a certain way, but when there are billions of book choices, I’m not really willing to take the chance.

Basically, without my new book club, I would not have picked up Louise O’Neill’s novel.

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This was the cover of my library copy

Only Ever Yours is a dystopian book about women and girls (called eves). They are genetically modified and hatched in a school for the use of men and boys (called Inheritants). These girls are brainwashed through propaganda for 16 years to follow mantras, like “I am pretty. I am a good girl. I always do as I am told” and “I am happy-go-lucky” and “I am appealing to others. I am always agreeable.” Whether they become a wife who bears sons, a concubine, or an unsexed teacher in the girls’ training school, they are told to be grateful that they weren’t naturally born and conceived, because girl babies are thrown in graves. Girls and women are property, totally at the disposal of a man’s desire to procreate or get off. The unsexed school teachers are not necessary, we’re told, but they’re important because they dispense the training to be wives and concubines. Their 16th year of life, the eves are told which role they will play. Whatever a girl’s role, it is expected for boys to get married and have a lot of sex with various women.

There are rules for eves:

All eves are created to be perfect, but over time they seem to develop flaws. Comparing yourself to your sisters is a useful way of identifying these flaws, but you must then take the necessary steps to improve yourself. There is always room for improvement. — Audio Guide to the Rules for Proper female Behavior, the Original Father

The focus on Only Ever Yours is the girls about to graduate school, at age 16.  To maintain the perfect weight (about 118 lbs) they all have eating disorders aided by pills. The main character is freida, #630. Each week, she and the other eves are ranked by how attractive they are. The top ten eves are most likely to secure a wife role. While eves have zero choices, because choices mean being burned on a pyre or experimented on —  Inheritants don’t have to compete for anything, so they are spoiled, fat, greedy, and demand sex. I kept thinking this whole society is driven by the throbbing penis.

The characters in Only Ever Yours are terribly familiar. If you’ve ever been a devoted fan of the Sweet Valley Twins books like I was, you’ll remember the cast: Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, perfect size sixes, matching golden blond hair, blue-green eyes. No one can tell the twins apart, except their family and dearest friends. Only Ever Yours has Liz and Jessie, “exact replicas” with “golden-blond hair” and “aqua-colored eyes.” If you’re thinking, the eves are genetically modified…how did they get twins? then I would say, I know, right?! The only explanation seems to be that the parallel between the two books was what Louise O’Neill was going for.

Just like in Sweet Valley, Only Ever Yours has a “bossy bitch,” a girl who wants to better than everyone else. In Sweet Valley, we’re talking about Lila Fowler. In O’Neill’s novel, it’s megan. Such girls give compliments like, “You’re so brave for wearing any old thing! I admire that!”

The eves in this book are painfully annoying because all they focus on is what they look like. This is how they’ve been trained their whole lives. They’re ranked by appearance. There are mirrors everywhere. They are weighed. One person hit 125 lbs, the FATTEST anyone’s ever been!! Then, I think back to Sweet Valley. The first book, Double Love, opens with this paragraph:

“Oh, Lizzie, do you believe how horrendous I look today!” Jessica Wakefield groaned as she stepped in front of her sister, Elizabeth, and stared at herself in the bedroom mirror. “I’m so gross! Just look at me! Everything is totally wrong. To begin with, I’m disgustingly fat….” With that, she spun around to show off a stunning figure without an extra ounce visible anywhere.

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Double Love, September 1984

And the eves in Only Ever Yours are exactly the same way. There’s the teeter-totter of competition for prettiest, but the recognition that both concubines and wives are part of society and please men.

Honestly, I can’t tell the eves apart. freida says the eves are “almost interchangeable.” The diversity, she points out, is in “skin tone and hair color.” freida is brown, but her color is only mentioned about 4 times. At one point, frieda’s skin is compared to that of an Inheritant named Mahatma. Perhaps she’s Indian, I thought, but remembered the eves all look exactly the same. There’s no ethnicity.

But as frieda takes more and more drugs to help her sleep, she feels that she looks terrible. Is that true? I’m not sure. Like Jessica Wakefield, most eves think they look terrible (except megan). freida is our biased, brainwashed narrator. One way O’Neill tells us eves are different is by their clothes — so. many. clothes. But I don’t know kitty heels and sweetheart necklines, so it didn’t mean much. And do clothes matter on identical perfect bodies?

Half of the book is backstabbing, manipulating, and alliances created between eves. It’s catty. It’s Sweet Valley Twins galore. Girls record any tiny wrongdoing a fellow eve may commit and immediately post it on social media. I kept telling myself the author is doing this on purpose. Just go with it. It’s a brilliant choice the author made to showcase contemporary jealousy and female objectification. But, ew.

Eves are told how NOT to feel: no crying, no loving boys, no persuading boys. Eves don’t even see Inheritants until a couple of months before the big ceremony. At the ceremony 16-year-old dudes just choose 16-year-old girls to be wives based on their smokin’ hot bodies. O’Neill suggests, this just means give birth to sons and feeling superior to the concubines, who were not ranked top ten. The arrival of the boys is actually where the story gets interesting because there is less focus on hotness rankings.

The author effectively plays with the reader’s feelings. We know who the top-ten hottest eves are. But after the boys show up, eves aren’t ranked anymore. They aren’t allowed to tell the boys how they were ranked. Why? Competition kept them fit and working hard to please, perhaps? Enter Darwin: he’s the only handsome Inheritant, and the son of a judge. He’s the Bruce Patman (if you’re still following my Sweet Valley Twin comparison). Darwin shows interest in our scrappy freida — it’s like there’s some Todd Wilkins mixed in there! Hooray, I thought! Darwin can save freida! Things can turn out okay! HE’S NICE.

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Bruce Patman VS. Todd Wilkins — same person?

Um, hello? Hey, self? Yeah…since when are we interested in a boy saving a girl? And ultimately, isn’t he going to use her body to have sons while having porno relations with concubines? And isn’t he going to set her on fire when she turns 40?? And isn’t she trained to be okay with all of this??? I actually rooted for Darwin and freida for ages before my brain caught up with me. The eves are so emotionally and sexually abused (and they don’t know it) that I thought a good old-fashioned romance between teenagers was the answer. The ending of Only Ever Yours was unpredictable. It kept changing directions, which kept me interested.

If I wanted the grown-up version of this book, I could have read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. But that’s not what book club picked. Despite the aspects that annoyed me — and let’s be fair; they were necessary for the story — I would recommend Only Ever Yours.

Something Wrong With Her

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Something Wrong With Her

Something Wrong With Her: A Real-Time Memoir
by Cris Mazza
Jaded Ibis Press, 2013
390 pages
Includes soundtrack, Time Stroll, composed and performed by Van Drecker (with Mark Rasmussen on tenor sax)

“The writing of this book is the story.”

Reading Cris Mazza’s memoir is a truly jolting experience. There is so much going on all at once that the emotion there is nearly overwhelming. She makes it obvious to you what she’s thinking in present time, but Something Wrong With Her is also like stepping into the past with the help of journal entries, letters, doodles, textbook quotes, jazz terms, excerpts from Mazza’s past publications, and the memories and emails of her dear friend Mark. The book doesn’t really have an ending point because it’s alive; what she wrote about is still happening. Let me back up.

“I hope this book is more like jazz than like a novel.”

Something Wrong With Her begins as an attempt to find the origins of Mazza’s anorgasmia (the inability to experience orgasm) and ends up being a love story that spans decades. You may be asking, “Why didn’t she edit the memoir so it has more cohesion, or maybe do two memoirs?” Mazza acknowledges this in the introduction. Throughout the memoir she includes jazz terms (which she defines in footnotes) and uses jazz as a model for how she pieces together this large book: “A jazz chart sometimes provides only sketchy information: the key, the meter, the main melody, something that might only take thirty seconds to play if taken literally. But no one asks, ‘What does this tune intend to accomplish?’ as readers of book manuscripts sometimes insist upon knowing up front.” The jazz terms can be complex if you’re not a little familiar with that world, but if you don’t get all of them (I didn’t), you’ll be fine (I was). They basically enhance rather than create understanding. But let’s back up again–the memoir starts out discussing “frigidity” or “sexual dysfunction.”

As time and social attitudes change, the reasons Mazza assumes for her “sexual dysfunction” change, too. Before sexual harassment laws, Mazza was harassed, like many women, but what does this do to her sense of self and her attitude toward her sexual body? When a teaching mentor suggested she masturbate to relax a bit, or when her boss suggested they needed a secretary with great legs, these moments also changed Mazza–really, what do these moments mean? Who has the right to discuss her body (or comment on someone else’s, thereby comparing one body to Mazza’s), and what are the long-term effects?

“It isn’t all about sex. But my shit is all concentrated there.”

The treatment of her male peers also dig into Mazza’s sexual self-esteem when her male “friends” in high school ask to practice feeling up her body so they’ll know what to do with their own girlfriends. One boy pins Mazza down and plays a sick game called “see if you can get out of this one.” A number of times she is told that she has nothing to offer (sexually) or that she doesn’t put out when she should or that touching her is sinful. These may be moments with which Mazza’s readers can relate, but how did they affect Mazza differently? She believes this is love, that she is meant to enjoy the way boys make her feel because everyone else seems to be into it. There becomes a lifelong desire to appear necessary or be needed, which she accomplishes by working 40 hours a week in an office during college when she is only paid for 10. She constantly is assaulted by the question, “What is wrong with me?”

The one person who is there, from 11th grade forward, is Mark (yes, the Mark who plays sax on the soundtrack). What appears an obvious (to the reader) desire to express his love to Mazza, both verbally and physically, is mistranslated into assault in 18-year-old Mazza’s eyes. How is that possible? Further back we go…

Mazza explores her aversion to the human body, namely her own. She refers to her own breasts as “blobs,” covering them with a wash cloth while in the bathtub so that she need not see them. She even mistakes the discharge that comes with ovulation for a yeast infection that comes back every month. Mazza expresses through writing and quotes from writers like Erica Jong that the smell, appearance, and overall “dirtiness” of the female body is something with which she wants no part. Why would anyone want that part of her? The writing obsesses over this theme of what makes a person: her actions, choices, desirability, her sexual body? Mark’s desire for Mazza may be viewed as the overzealous nature of a teenage boy, or it could be interpreted as Mazza taking all her previous experiences with jerks from school and placing her fears between her and Mark.

“[My writing group seems] to want the book to confine itself to one purpose and drive toward that like a train that doesn’t switch tracks, barely even glances at the scenery rushing past, and certainly doesn’t derail, as [Something Wrong With Her] appears to be doing.” 

Mark and Mazza spend years dancing around each other, never “getting it together,” and a lot of that might have to do with the way Mazza becomes stuck when she feels she is in a place where she is needed. She continues working in the same office for years during and after college, always finding new ways that allow her to stay there when she should move on. When she is forcefully ejected from the office, she completely falls apart: “Basically, I was almost constantly crying, about to cry, apologizing for crying, crying because I’d had to apologize for crying (another childish behavior), and then crying because I didn’t know what I was really crying about.” Mazza frequently calls herself childish in her memoir, but this passage to me suggests that Mazza is apologizing for being alive–for “inflicting” herself on others by breathing in the same space. I’ve read there are some women who will bump into an object and apologize to it, and I can see this young Mazza being one of those women. It’s also in this section where a connection between sex and sexual desire and being apologetic comes together: IS something wrong with her, as Mazza questions, because she doesn’t function sexually like other women seem to? It seems that every time she reaches a pivotal stage of personal development someone awful is there to suggest to her that yes, she is broken.

The result is that this memoir circles around these key moments with inappropriate individuals, sometimes repeating the same passages word-for-word. Many moments are re-explored because Mark, who now has reconnected with Mazza (30 years later! Practically the stuff of fiction!), adds in his ideas about what happened and how their dance affected his life. Really, we see a woman trying to wrap her head around what on earth was/is going on, and this is why reading Something Wrong With Her is like existing inside another’s head for 390 pages.

An interesting point I learned is that Mazza has been trying to think through her “sexual dysfunction” for much longer than I might have supposed. Throughout the book she quotes her published novels and stories to demonstrate that her thoughts have been on sex, but she may not have realized what the reason or result was. When she writes a story using a scene that actually happened between her and Mark in a bar, she admits she implies that the fictionalized male possibly raped the woman in the past, and so things are complicated between them. Some stories are close to Mazza’s life but rewritten to be more sexual, when the author wasn’t having sex at the time she wrote the story. Also, Mazza admits most of her female protagonists have gone through name changes, significant if you consider the fact that Cris Mazza was not born with the name she now uses. Reading through Mazza’s interpretations of why she wrote what she did in stories that date back decades is interesting, like sitting down and interviewing her on her writing process. You may finish Something Wrong With Her feeling like you know Mazza, perhaps better than herself.

INTERVIEW with Cris Mazza about Something Wrong With Her–

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GTL: Revision can be one of the most frustrating parts of writing. How difficult was it to revise a “living memoir,” and was it difficult to know where it “ended”?

CM: Where it ended was a problem.  I thought I knew, but then while the MS was being read, or waiting to be read, there were other developments in the “real life” part of the memoir story.  That’s why I have dated boxed inserts and footnotes that are later than the date of the last chapter (which was in January 2010).  I decided I didn’t want to have that original “ending” be a false ending, or like a bombastic piece of music that just keeps coming to a finale only to keep on going afterwards.  BUT then, during a final revision, I did decide to add the last page after that ending, just because things in the “real life” story had developed so far, I didn’t want it to end on a note of that much uncertainty as far as Mark’s future was concerned.

Revising also presented the same kinds of problems.  Just fixing sentences or deleting surplus wasn’t difficult, but every time Mark read a portion, he would have new comments and insights too valuable not to include, so I would date them and get them in there.  Thus the scattering of all sorts of dates which I’m sure most readers won’t look at that closely.  Nor do they have to, unless they truly want to map out the entire evolution of our understanding of each other.  I’m not even sure I could do that, though.

GTL: While reading, I had an overwhelming sense of deja vu because many sections of Something Wrong With Her repeat, sometimes word-for-word. What made you decide to use repetition as a tool for telling your story?

CM: Partly I did it because the “core story” of the book involved such small events, partly because I was digressing so long before I answered the central question, partly because I found it interesting how much an event would change each time I referred to it or dramatized it, and partly because repeating and developing or playing with the main theme is how music works, particularly jazz.

GTL: In Something Wrong With Her, you quote one of your old journals. You wrote that you wanted people to read your work and then they “look at [you] afterwards, and [you] can see what [you] put on paper coming out in their eyes.” Have you seen this memoir reflected back at you yet?

CM: Yes, from Mark while we were finishing it, but he’s a jazz musician so things don’t come out his eyes, they always come back thought about, mulled over, and improvised to both echo the original idea and add to it (or ask a question about it).  I’m not sure my college-girl description of affecting readers has ever really happened like that with a published book.  Probably because I don’t hang out waiting for people to finish like I might have done then.

GTL: You quote many stories and novels that you wrote prior to Something Wrong With Her in the memoir because you realized that you’ve been “reflexively seeking to explain [your] sexual bankruptcy.” Do you think there will be a marked change in your fiction writing now that you’ve explored “sexual dysfunction” so in depth in this book?

CM: Good question, and time will tell.  Perhaps I will no longer be exploring that series of unresolved relationships with older men.  But I think human beings’ relationships to their sexuality and their own sexual pasts will always be an interest of mine.

GTL: Are you working on anything new?

CM: I started a project that could turn into a novella and series of related personal essays, concerning lifelong regrets, going back to pick up pieces, and (the novella) men in abusive relationships.

I want to thank Jaded Ibis Press from a reviewer’s copy of Cris Mazza’s book in exchange for an honest review. Full disclosure: I have stories published in two anthologies from Jaded Ibis Press.

Jackpot

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Jackpot

Jackpot by Tsipi Keller

published by Spuyten Duyvil press, 2004

Tsipi Keller wrote an intense trio of books that all “psychological portraits” of women. In her “Meet the Writer” feature, Keller referred to the books as a trilogy; however, the novels are not related. I’ve read two, and they have the same creepy, deeply psychological feel to them. I read Elsa first, which was published in 2014, after Keller sent it to me for review. I was disturbed by it, but intrigued to read more from this author, so she sent me the other two books. Jackpot came in 2004, and Retelling came in 2006. I’ll read Retelling soon; the synopsis is chilling.

In Jackpot, Tsipi Keller is a master of making the reader concerned about the well-being of the main character. Maggie is a 26-year-old woman living in New York City who has always been a middle-class, hand-me-downs kind of person. She meets 25-year-old Robin at a job she got with a temp agency, and the narrator notes Maggie is the one who really pushed for them to remain friends after their short-lived jobs are finished. Maggie feels that over time the two became close friends, but any reader will find this hard to believe on the first page. Robin loves to refer to Maggie as “sweetie” in a way that sounds demeaning. She criticizes Maggie, saying she is “naive and not assertive enough,” “insecure,” “negative,” “too cheerful,” “such a baby,” “so shrewd,” and has a “common variety of social phobia or something worse.” Notice how many of these contradict.

There is so much doubt and hesitancy in Maggie, and she has a number of reasons to feel that way. The story starts with Maggie sitting in Robin’s living room. They are supposed to go out to dinner, but Robin instead brings up going on a trip to Paradise Island in the Bahamas. A description of Robin is very important to know:

Good breeding and class; it is clear that Robin never lacked for anything. Robin. who is secretive about her exact money situation, but lets it be known she comes from wealth, every so often dropping a hint or two about her glamorous parents in L.A. She is lavish when it comes to her own needs, but calculating and quite the tightwad when it comes to others.

Why doesn’t Robin go with her friend Lucy, like she did last time, Maggie wants to know. Robin simply says she wants to go with Maggie. This is five pages in, and already I’m so worried about Maggie. In response to Robin saying she wants to vacation with Maggie, not Lucy, Maggie thinks:

So, it is all in her head. She must accept the possibility that Robin has no ulterior motives, that Robin is just being Robin, and that her own convoluted thoughts and distrust are a direct result of her middle-class circumstances, circumstances she’d do well to forget and put behind her. She should feel privileged, and frequently she does, that Robin has accepted her as a friend. At times she even wonders why Robin sticks with her.

If Maggie is worried, surely the reader should be too (*warning bells*). And since when are we “lucky” when certain people like us? A character so self-doubting is sure to be abused in some way. Robin sits there oinking on a bag of candy without offering Maggie any. When Maggie decides yes, she’ll go to Paradise Island, Robin practically throws her out of the apartment, exclaiming, “I don’t know what’s the matter with me, but I couldn’t go out [to dinner] if you paid me. You sure you don’t mind? I feel a little guilty.” Maggie says she doesn’t mind, but she cries all the way home. More warning bells.

Robin is immediately juxtaposed with Susan, Maggie’s co-worker. Susan plays a tiny role in the book, mostly to show readers what a good friend actually looks like and expose thoroughly what a horrible human Robin is, in case you doubt it. The author taking this extra step set off more bells, as if she did not want readers to forget nice people aren’t like Robin. But when Maggie is with Susan, two important things happen: she drinks way too much and gets sloppy drunk, and she admits that she was married from ages 20-23 to a man who had sexual issues. Maggie’s ex-husband claimed he didn’t like the way her vagina smelled and thus only wanted her to perform oral sex. Or, Maggie admits, he “insisted she wear a veil or a scarf over her face during sex. He asked her to pretend she was a prostitute or a stranger.” More warning bells! There is a deep problem with sex and shame waiting to bubble up in the novel…you can just tell.

There isn’t a change in Maggie’s personality until she and Robin get on the plane for the Bahamas. Robin is extra grumpy, and Maggie notices that Robin is just a bit fat. Maggie is incredibly thin and lithe, so she feels smug. Maggie immediately scolds herself for being petty. But at the hotel she learns Robin has packed beautiful party dresses, whereas Maggie packed casuals (because Robin told her to). More warning bells! Where is Robin going in party dresses that she hasn’t told Maggie about? Then Maggie sees Robin reading an airport book and mentally belittles her for reading such trash. Immediately, she feels bad again. Maggie believes, “She wants to love Robin always, she wants Robin to love her back. Everything is so much simpler when she can trust Robin.” Which means she doesn’t always trust Robin, right? There’s also this connection between wanting Robin’s love and being shamed by her ex-husband that’s rather brilliant. Tsipi Keller doesn’t have Maggie seek love in another man, but in friendship, which is different from many books. But a page later, Robin says, “Once we get there, you won’t need me, I promise. You’ll be having too much fun.” Does this mean Robin is going to ditch Maggie?

Maggie goes swimming in the ocean, and when she returns to the towel where Robin rests, she finds a man, too. He and Robin laugh at everything Maggie says, even things that aren’t funny. Robin makes sly remarks like “See what I told you?” and Maggie wonders why this guy is so tan when he says he just got in from New Jersey that day. Things feel suspicious! At this point, I’m just waiting for something terrible to happen.

And Robin does start to disappear. Maggie turns around and Robin is gone, like when they go gambling in the hotel casino. Eventually, Maggie starts thinking “fuck Robin” a lot. I feel Maggie’s change in attitude is a bit quick. While I felt suspicious building up to Robin disappearing, Maggie didn’t. She was naive and hopeful, so the quick turn around didn’t quite make sense to me.

Then Maggie slowly tries to emulate Robin. She walks around naked in front of the maid, but immediately regrets it. The author shows the reader that Maggie wants to be something new, someone who isn’t middle class, someone who doesn’t have a vagina “odor.” Maggie’s body, she believes, is better than Robin’s, and Robin’s money can’t really change that. Maggie’s body, when she feels like she’s in control of it, gives her a power she’s never had before.

Then Robin full-on abandons Maggie, sneaking into the room in the middle of the night to grab her things and leave on a yacht with an old man. And everything goes to hell. The author ties together Maggie getting drunk with her co-worker way back in the beginning with her drunken state on vacation, suggesting Maggie gets drunk more often than her sweet, intelligent character would if she weren’t so damaged. Maggie starts hanging out in the hotel casino all night, drinking, not eating, and blacking out. She becomes conscious again when a man starts to have intercourse with her. He’s not wearing a condom…but his repetitive apologies make her want to laugh at him! She then starts crying about losing money at the casino, so he leaves $100 on the bed.

While my first thought is Maggie has been raped and she should go home (Robin’s not even there anymore), Tsipi Keller continues the story in the Bahamas. Various versions of the above scene play out (blacking out and rape), and I started making the connection that while Maggie isn’t asking for money to have sex with strangers, it’s happening nonetheless. How does this continue to happen?

Woven throughout the novel are examples of sexual traumas Maggie’s experienced: as a 13-year-old girl newly in bras, a man grabbed her breast and was disappointed to find padding. Maggie remembers feeling shame that she “failed to please him” in some way. At about seven a strange man molests her after tricking her into his home. Another time, when she played hide-and-seek at a friends house, the friend’s dad pulled her aside and made her touch his genitals. So much sexual abuse in one story, the but the more I read and listen to my friends, the more I realize these examples are common. Because Maggie’s body was out of her control when she was a girl, the novel suggests, she can use her body to gain control over her life as an adult. And if she’s going to get molested and raped anyway, why not profit from it?

To be honest, it took me a while to realize this. I couldn’t understand why Maggie was totally losing it. Two of the abuses she suffered as a child are lumped together in the book. If they were spread out, or perhaps closer to the scenes during which strange men are using her body, like a moment she remembers when she regains consciousness, I may have made the connection faster.

Truly, there is a lot to think about in this book. The ending isn’t the end because women experience sexual trauma at all ages, and how they deal with it varies. I don’t feel as if I’ve given any spoilers because the book doesn’t have a “the end” feel to it. Some events in the last chapters I found difficult to put together, but after mulling over it all for a few days, I realized that I did race through this book, wondering what would happen. I was worried about Maggie and wanted to figure out Robin’s approach to life. Therefore, I recommend this book and highly suggest you read the trio together.

I want to thank Tsipi Keller for sending me a reviewer’s copy of her book in exchange for an honest review.

Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology

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Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology

Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology

edited by Donna Jarrell and Ira Sukrungruang

320 pages

published by Mariner Books, Jan 2005

Donna Jarrell’s and Ira Sukrungruang’s anthologies (they also have a fat fiction anthology — see below) have become important to me. Fall of 2013 I taught from the fiction anthology as part of a Contemporary Fiction class. None of my students were even chubby, let alone fat, so the anthology meant little to them–at first. I found that some of them were so thin because they had obsessive parents. One young man’s father was obese and constantly trying to work it off. Another your woman’s mother was a personal trainer who warned over and over the dangers of eating the “wrong foods” and becoming fat.

However, when I read this nonfiction anthology, I felt a deeper connection because these were real people explaining in words that I often couldn’t put together the way they felt about fat. The authors are not all fat or obese; some are quite thin, but write to explain how they feel about seeing or being with fat people.

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Donna Jarrell

In “Letting Myself Go,” Sallie Tisdale weights about 165 lbs, a weight many fat people would kill to be. She is a frequent dieter. She notes, “The pettiness is never far away; concern with my weight evokes the smallest, meanest parts of me. I look at another woman passing on the street and think, At least I’m not that fat.” I myself have had such thoughts, and so Tisdale made me consider how I internalize the bodies of others.

Natalie Kusz writes in “On Being Invisible” that she takes up more space, but is less seen. She points out, “The fact is, the old racist attitude that ‘all black (or Asian or Latin) people look alike’ also applies to fat people, with the same main corollary: We look alike to other beings because they cannot see us at all.” I was surprised by this comparison and began to reassess the way I look at people I see who take up more room. Do I look away? Do I see these people as all the same because they have one shared quality?

“Tight Fits” by Ira Sukrungruang is more like a guide with examples. How does an obese person get around the challenges of getting into small places, like airplane seats or sacred temples in Thailand. The goal seems to be to avoid embarrassment, and I felt embarrassed that I’ve considered such tactics myself (only in different scenarios). The accommodations for others can feel endless when you are abandoned for being “too big.”

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Ira Sukrungruang (pretty much the only man allowed on Grab the Lapels so far)

Atul Gawande describes “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Eating” from a doctor’s point of view. Gawande is always concerned that his patient will regain all of the weight lost after gastric bypass surgery. It turns out that he learns the patient is also concerned. Is this problem bigger than his desires? I really liked seeing the exchanges between the doctor and patient outside of the hospital because the doctor could give facts from a medical standpoint while still engaging with the human patient who fears for his life and wonders how quality it can be if he remains morbidly obese.

I thought it was a fantastic choice on the part of the editors to put Sondra Solovay’s piece “Now You See Me, Now You Don’t” right after Gawande’s essay. While Gawande describes the high success rates of G.B. surgery and how it is the best option medical science has, Solovay points out immediately that she had a friend who was 310 lbs looking happy in on the steps of a pyramid in El Salvador. And how that friend had G.B. surgery and died. What this achieves is showing readers that no matter which option is the best in terms of losing weight, they can all be dangerous. Should the 310 lb friend have continued her life at 310 lbs? A friend of mine who had G.B. surgery and became pregnant and then regained most of the weight pointed out to me that she cut up her insides to get society to look at her. She has a lot of health problems now, and I’m not sure how long she’ll be a mother to her toddler.

Steven A. Shaw celebrates being a chubby man in “Fat Guys Kick Ass.” This is mostly a list of ways that fat guys are better lovers and boyfriends who are stronger but more peaceful. This is a very fun-loving piece that makes me rethink what others feel internally. Not all fat people feel bad inside, I must remember.

Many other readers have commented on the remaining essays (written by giants like David Sedaris and Anne Lamott or that describe a thin person’s hate for fat individuals, like Irvin Yalom or the “hoggers”), but one that struck me was “Fat Like Him” by Lori Gottlieb. She was so happy when she didn’t know that Tim, who was on the other end of her email, was fat. When they are together, she is embarrassed that people will think she’s with him and she calls him a friend. At home, though, they have fantastic sex and she is very happy with him. However, I read that Gottlieb’s essay is mostly untrue. This could be the result of her stretching the truth, or it could be that her ex is humiliated, and why wouldn’t he be? This is the sort of thing that really requires prior approval since the situation is so specific (no one will not know who this guy is in real life whether we call him “Tim” or not).

Overall, this book made me assess myself and the way others perceive me and the way I perceive them, regardless of size, but with fat in mind.

My quick thoughts on the What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthology

The stories in this collection were really great. When I read the title of the anthology, my first thought was the Raymond Carver story “Fat,” and it was in there. BUT! I kept wondering…is this all there is out there in terms of “fat-fiction”? No one else writes any? Makes me want to write more of it…also makes me wonder if people don’t really want to read it and that is why I can’t get any published. Also, I’m really surprised that most of the reviews of this book comment that the reader expected this to be an uplifting anthology. It can be really difficult to turn a physical/psychological problem into something feel-good. I wasn’t expecting that at all.

Bogeywoman

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Bogeywoman

Bogeywoman by Jaimy Gordon

343 pages

Published by Sun & Moon Classics in 1999

*Gordon became a bestselling author when her book Lord of Misrule won the 2010 National Book Award. Bogeywoman, despite being on the Los Angeles Times list of best books in 2000, is virtually unknown, and a simple Google search shows there is almost no information about it. I sent an e-mail to the author recently to see if she’ll agree to do an interview, but in the meantime I’m really proud to be able to share this review of my favorite book with you and add a little to the conversation about this brilliant work!

For most of my life, I have been that person who hates listening to most people read aloud. Remember the kids in class in elementary school stuttering along? (I actually kicked a boy in 4th grade because he couldn’t read; my behavior has since improved). Then there were those kids in high school who tried to read at 100 miles per hour to prove how smart they were, inevitably skipping over all punctuation and killing the rhythm. Even some authors at their own readings have a hard time making their words more lively than a used tissue. But when I got hearing aids a few years ago, I was told I needed to read aloud to strengthen the nerves in my ears that were still alive but very weak due to my hearing deficit. My husband wanted to cheer me on by volunteering as my solo audience. I started with Lynda Barry’s novel Cruddy, one of my favorite books included firmly in my “Girls Gone Wild” self-created genre. Not Girls Gone Wild the franchise, but truly girls (about 12 to 18) who are nearly feral. My husband loved Cruddy. And thus, we have been reading aloud to each other since. Our most recent “bedtime story” was Bogeywoman, an experimental, innovative, deeply moving novel.

Bogeywoman Cover

I left the cover quite large so you could see all the little details.

The story begins with the narrator proclaiming that she is the Bogeywoman and that she was sent to an insane asylum. Someone named Doctor Zuk got her kicked out, but then Doctor Zuk got kicked out too. The narrator says, “But first she saved me, and that’s when I lost her — if I ever had her — unless I am her. Am I Zuk? (13). Really, this is enough to make a wimpy reader quit. It already sounds existential, and it’s only the first paragraph.

Then, our narrator begins (almost as if in mid-sentence) to tell her reader the story of how she ended up in an asylum when she wasn’t even insane (according to her — she’s the narrator). It all starts at Camp Chunkagunk, the narrator’s favorite place in the world. She’s on her 9th summer there at age 16, a true devotee. The camp has all kinds of strange names for activities: Lake Twinny, Chipmunk vs. Big Bear, Wood Wiz, Upside Down Day, Lake Sci, and Evening Pro. The narrator throws all of these terms at you as if you’re a camper yourself and don’t need much explanation. She also tosses out names — Margaret, Merlin, Suzette — but doesn’t tell you who they are. They are her sister, father, and step-mother, a hands-off family, making Ursula quite orphan-like except her dad is world famous for a puppet show he does on TV. It can get confusing. Let’s be fair, though; this narrator did explain she’d been sent to an insane asylum, so you have to just go with it.

“Going with it” is a rewarding part of Bogeywoman. A lot of times I feel like a first person narrator is really just the author using a character as a puppet to say what he/she likes. A book I know that got a lot of criticism over such puppetry was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Jonathan Safran Foer was accused of putting his 28-year-old voice into 9-year-old Oskar’s thoughts. The narrator of Bogeywoman is entirely her own teen. I met author Jaimy Gordon at a reading. She looks like the kind of lady whose mother signed her up for ballet and equestrian when she was two — no sign of the nutbar that is the narrator.

To help you out, should you choose to read this book (and you should), let me give you some summary of what happens to land the narrator in an asylum:

She’s at Camp Chunkagunk, age 16, floating on her back in Sourhunk Lake, when she realizes she wants to put her hand between another girl’s legs. It hits her like a freeway accident: she’s a lesbian. The narrator then goes back and explains that her name is Ursula Koderer, but everyone calls her the Bogeywoman. She earned the name when she was 7 after she put a snake down a chimney in the camp counselors’ cabin and thundered, “I’m the Bogeywoman.” But after she realizes she’s a lesbian, that’s what Bogeywoman actually means to Ursula. She’s an unhygienic girl whose descriptions of herself would make you think she were a potato with sprouts.

Ursula thinks she falls in love with her cabin mate, Lou Rae Greenrule, who’s also a strange girl. Ursula finds Lou Rae one day putting clay she found in the ground on her face as a beauty aid, but she’s sitting stark naked with only her long, long hair covering her. Ursula gets Lou Rae to head toward the perimeters of camp to find more clay, which is where Ursula makes a move on the younger girl. Lou Rae acts like she wants the physical contact, but then changes her mind, leaving Ursula out to dry!

Later, Ursula seeks out Willis Marie Bundgus (the “wood wizardess” who teaches tracking skills at the camp) for some solidarity after getting ditched. She finds Willis talking to a camp handyman, a really gumpy guy named Ottie Grayson (aren’t the names just fabulous?). Willis is trying to put the moves on ol’ Ottie, but turns out, Lou Rae promised Ottie she’d hook up with him! Ursula puts it all together and goes on a rampage. She runs away from camp, heading past the perimeter, which is punishable by expulsion from Camp Chunkagunk. As she walks, Ursula carves a map of the camp into her arms. She bleeds all over, so she takes off her shirt (she doesn’t wear a bra) to wrap her arms up. And that’s how the police find her: walking down the road, naked from the belly button up, bleeding all over the place. This is how Ursula winds up in an expensive insane asylum in Baltimore.

Now, why did I summarize so much? I never summarize so much! It’s you’re job to read the book, right? Well, the beginning of Bogeywoman can be really hard to slog through. Even my husband, dutiful listener that he is, expressed hesitancy about my continuing after the first chapter (which is 55 pages). It doesn’t seem that complicated, though, right? Here’s the thing: readers are in Ursula’s head, so she talks like Ursula. She makes up a lot of her own words, and her phrasing is a bit off. Jaimy Gordon makes use of comma splices to keep the reading practically running. There’s little room to breath. Here’s an example of Ursula’s thoughts when she finds out Lou Rae is hiding in the bushes, waiting to hook up with Ottie, and he’s walking around to find her. Ursula is hiding in a tree watching it happen:

I guess I’d watched too many Saturday serials where Hopalong Cassidy drops on Bullet from the fiery hayloft of the burning livery stable. When Ottie, whistling, passed under the apple tree I uttered a mad gargle — Keep your mitts off her — and without exactly thinking about it I dropped on his shoulders, boxed his bubblegum-pink ears with my fists, got his skinny neck in a death grip with my skinny thighs, hung upside down gasping Keep your mitts off her and pounding his stomach, and finally I let go with my thighs and plunged to earth, tackling him on the way down. “Whoa, whoa,” he was yelling, “cool it, Bogey-woman, you’re right off your noodle, whaddaya mean, off who?” The funny thing is, I wasn’t mad at him, I swear I wasn’t. It was that dirty rotten Lou Rae I was mad at, who had loved me for twelve-and-a-half minutes and left me, but I wasn’t going to put a hand on her, was I? Lemme die first.

In the above quote, you get an idea of the pacing of the sentences. However, Ursula makes up a lot of words too! Here are some of them and their meanings:

  • buggy = crazy
  • bug house = insane asylum
  • dreambox mechanic/adjuster = psychiatrist
  • Bug Motels = Ursula’s group who play music on instruments made out of hospital items in the bughouse
  • girlgoyle = female
  • fuddy = male
  • spooky-fluted = threatening way of speaking
  • * Unbeknownst to Everybody = lesbian
  • sumpn = something
  • godzillas sake = for God’s sakes
  • momps = breasts
  • oink = fuck (as in, “go oink yourself”)
  • cheese = jeez

Ursula also gets names wrong, like calling her psychiatrist, Dr. Feuffer, “Foofer” and Dr. Zuk’s home “Caramel-Creamistan” (that should be Karamul-Karamistan). She mixes up famous people, too, like Sigmund Food and Margaret Meat. The made up names and words begin right away. You’re not given time to adjust and slowly learn them, you “go with it” or quite reading. If you read the book more than once, you realize Ursula gives away the whole plot early on, including the details, but in a first read, you’re just trying to figure out your head from your lower parts. I love this deep inventiveness from Jaimy Gordon.

new bogey

2011 Vintage cover I don’t like nearly as much as the 1999 version.

The absolute best part of this novel are the diverse voices. Oh, God, Jaimy Gordon is so good at it. Let me give you some samples with the preface that if you read this book aloud it is so fun. You can’t NOT do the voices because Gordon spells words phonetically. Please be aware that I triple checked that there are no typos in these quotes; this is how people’s voices are written:

From Reginald — “the Regicide” — an African American orderly in the bughouse insulting Ursula:

I use to think you smart but now I see you don’t have the sense to come in out the rain. You don’t know how many pea beans make five. You don’t have the sense God gave a nanny goat. You the type climb on the mental clothesline pole to see which way the storm be passing. You ain’t got the motherwit to track a rhino in four foot of snow. You don’t know which way you at, girl. You couldn’t get there if I put you there.

(My favorite Regicide insult is when, to tell Ursula how dirty she is, he says, “You dusty as a peanut too”).

From Chug, an African American man makes a living “junking” (looking for crap to sell) who thinks Ursula is a prostitute. The white fuzz is lint from her sweatshirt stuck in drying blood after she’s carved on her arms again (self-mutilation):

You the sorriest-looking raggedy-ass girl-boy ho I ever see and that white fuzz on you arms scare a hound dog off a gut wagon. Now gone home. Get.

From Doctor Zuk, a older female dreambox mechanic Ursula falls in love with, who we learn is from Karamul-Karamistan (not a real place but definitely something Soviet-like):

With you, Miss Bogeywoman, is all game. Is funny hunger for craziness, itch for crazy. …Don’t worry, I tell no one. You are crazy like hare in March, like weasel in henhouse maybe. You want to be crazy. Is some kind mating dance with you.

From Suzette, Ursula’s step-mother, who tells Ursula she’s happy Ursula’s not in the bughouse anymore (instead of an “er” sound she gives an “oi” sound):

That place was fine for a month or two…and, as I recall, the poisonnel — wasn’t his name Reginald? — was extremely kind. So helpful! But for two years, as a sort of sleepover boarding school without the school, the place was a little overpriced, don’t you think? I mean, Oi-sula, the bills are breaking your poor father’s back.

And each and every character is like this: a unique voice that you can actually hear in your head! No two characters sound the same. It’s the most amazing use of language to make characters come to life that I’ve ever experienced in a book.

I want to end by saying that Bogeywoman is about a teenage girl trying to survive as a lesbian using self-mutilation in the 1970s, a time when you were considered literally crazy if you were gay. The novel doesn’t tell you it’s set in the 1970s, but during the reading I attended, Gordon said this book was inspired by her sister, who actually spent time in an asylum for being a lesbian. But, it’s a really funny book, too. Ursula pursues Dr. Zuk with unwavering love, gets into trouble with the Bug Motels, and escapes the bughouse once or twice. I’ll end with this passage about a strange resident in the bughouse:

Why Mrs. Wilmot was still in the Teenage Ward after all these years, nobody knew. Wilmot was a skinny-shanked, potbellied old girl of around sixty, in a buttonless (or she’d have unbuttoned it) pink chemise, with skin like a wet brown bag sliding down her bones. Now that woman was crazy, which, come to think of it, did nothing for her prestige with us Bug Motels. Mostly what she did was sit on the bench just inside the entrance to the Adolescent Wing and pull up her dress and waggle the peapod, yes I mean her graypink coochie in its skimpy ring of grizzled whiskers, in full view of us all.

green bogey

2004 cover from Green Integer press

 

How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch

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How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch

TITLE: How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch
AUTHOR: D. Bryant Simmons
PUBLISHER: Bravebird Publishing (Jan 2014)

D. Bryant Simmons has already made an appearance at Grab the Lapels when she answered my questions for the Meet the Writer series, and I am pleased to be able to review her book, How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch, which is the first in what is called the Morrow Girls series. D’s second book in the series, Blue Sky, was recently released, so if you like this review and read the book, the second one is available!

How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch is set mostly in the 1970s and is about Belinda (“Pecan”), a girl with a daddy who raised her right and loved her so, but when a Ricky comes into her town, things get messy. Pecan’s daddy doesn’t really seem to like Ricky, but he can’t say too much about it, as he has a heart attack and dies within the first few pages. Ricky and Pecan get married and move to Chicago where Ricky trains as a boxer and Pecan starts having babies. Girl after girl is born, and Ricky really wants a boy. He appears to hold this against Pecan, but that’s not surprising; Ricky has a temper on him and fists trained to hit. For several years, Ricky’s Aunt Clara lives with the family, and she is often able to keep Ricky from knocking the crap out of Pecan by threatening him with a cast iron skillet. But one night, when Pecan goes dancing with her girlfriends after Aunt Clara tells her she has to, Pecan meets an honorable man.

It’s not 100% clear to me what would be considered a spoiler, so I’ll stop there. There are two distinct aspects of this novel that stand out: the way Simmons challenges the reader to face their preconceived notions about domestic abuse, and the pacing.

It’s fairly early in the story that the reader learns that Ricky hits. Pecan tries to use her voice for the first time, but is silenced:

That’s all I could get out before he hit me again. And again. And again. I just couldn’t believe it. Not me. Other girls might have that happen to them but not me. My man was not doing that to me.

There are a series of thoughts that I had as a reader that made me feel horrible, and I believe Simmons was doing this to me on purpose. First, I paid attention to why Ricky hit Pecan the first time. Shortly after their first baby is born, Pecan packs up the baby and as much food as she can carry and tries to run away. She says that she has been lying to him to tell him what he wants to hear, but if I think back on the timeline, they haven’t been together that long. Why did she marry the first guy to talk to her, I ask, if she’s just going to lie to him? When I think about Ricky finding Pecan standing on the sidewalk with his baby and her guilt, I realize that I would be mad, too. Then comes the hitting. It’s that moment that Simmons makes readers tie together poor logic: Pecan was being a horrible person, and Ricky was just reacting. Of course, people make these logical leaps in the real world all the time. We excuse the hitters and blame the victims–and are quick to do so. When Pecan spends years and years and years getting hit by Ricky, readers are forced to wonder why she doesn’t call the police. Why she doesn’t try to run away again. Why she doesn’t ask for help. We think, Oh, she’s probably thinking he doesn’t hit the kids, so it’s okay, but once he does she’ll leave (how stupid; of course he’ll eventually hit the kids). This is where we must all stop; why are we asking questions of what Pecan does and doesn’t do and not of what Ricky does? This is one of the triumph’s of Simmons’s novel: she makes readers go to these uncomfortable places and face their own judgments.

The pacing becomes very important to making the novel realistic. The children growing are great time indicators, and part of their growth is not just age, but in cognitive function. They begin to realize what’s going on, to speak to their mother differently than their father, to realize what makes them afraid. Watching the four daughters grow into their personalities gives the book a slow, steady pace that demonstrates just how long the domestic abuse goes on. We don’t need to read about every punch and every cut, black eye, and broken bone (I remember reading these details in Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked Into Doors and feeling sick over and over) because there are other ways Simmons shows how time progresses. When child protective services gets involved, it seems like the whole CPS agent/home visits is a waste of time to the point where I felt myself getting angry with an agency designed to help children be with their parents and be properly cared for. It feels like Pecan will never be with her family and happy and unafraid because someone will always be a barrier.

Took my time going down the stairs. One step at a time. Holding onto the banister and the wall. Had to come up with new reasons to get outta bed every night. Wasn’t no sense in having both of us worry. I flicked on the lights and checked each window on the main floor. Had to wait until bedtime because Heziah was in the habit of opening a window every time he went into a room, but most of the time he forgot to close and lock it. Wasn’t his fault. He just ain’t know like I did. I knew better than to leave anything open or unlocked. We’d gotten the locks changed, but Ricky Morrow wasn’t the type to let a locked door stop him.

And it is this slow pacing that gives the book its realistic feel; separation, violence, legal issues, and parents’ rights are not easy topics to summarize and stuff in the closet. It’s a long, drawn-out process that affects so many individuals, and Simmons captures that reality in her book.

Overall, How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch is novel that is able to capture many characters and render them in a realistic tone that makes it pleasurable to read in addition to the challenging topics readers will face.